Writing for the Web

Writing for the Web presents significant differences from traditional media and there are specific user characteristics you must consider. First, users for the most part scan Web pages rather than read them. Therefore, your pages should be written in a way that lets users quickly scan for what they want. Second, online reading speeds are slower than traditional media. Finally, users don't like to scroll through huge documents, so break up long articles into smaller/shorter hyper-linked documents. Here's some scenarios to consider:

  • If your Web page is designed more for navigating users to other resources such as in the case of most home pages, then the page should be designed to accommodate fast scanning of the links within the page by optimizing link titles and minimizing the number of words on the page.
  • Some content needs to be presented in the form of an article that lends itself to reading rather than scanning. In this case the guidelines mentioned below can assist you with writing a page that will be easier for your audience to read.
  • In some cases, Web pages may need to contain a mix of links and written content. For example it may be necessary to construct a page that contains menus of links (more than just the persistent navigation menu) as well as have several paragraphs of information which may or may not have links embedded within them. Users will approach a document of this nature by scanning and reading. That is, unless it is vital that they understand every detail within the entire page, they will scan the page until they find headings or keywords that are of interest, then they will read that section of information more carefully.

The following guidelines expand upon the above principles.

Consider the following guidelines when formatting your online documents:

  • Splitting long documents into multiple hyper-linked Web pages allows users to read faster and avoid scrolling.
  • Users can enter your site at any page, so make sure every page explains its purpose without relying on prior Web pages.
  • Linking to supportive or explanatory information decreases the length of your Web pages and lets users find the desired content faster. However, don't make the user travel to another page if that information can be easily presented on the current page.
  • Use short and descriptive titles for link text. That is, all links should contain a few keywords that accurately describe what resides at the destination of the link. This should almost always include a descriptive title and may also include the file size of the destination file and the name of the destination Web site if it links outside your site. (See the Links section for additional design considerations when creating links on Web pages)
  • Put important information at the top of the page.
  • Use simple sentence structure to increase reading speed.
  • Use a page title, headings, and highlighted words to draw users attention to important information. This increases reading and scanning speeds. However, make sure that your highlighted text won't be mistaken for links.
  • Use bulleted and numbered lists to emphasize important points. Numbered lists should only be used when order is important.
  • Limit each paragraph to one main point and no more than five sentences.
  • Start pages and paragraphs with your conclusions and use the rest of the paragraph or page to support it (inverted pyramid).
  • The page title (or topmost heading) should be the largest heading and clearly identify why the page is important. Supporting headers should clearly indicate the sections of content within a page.